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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Gyula Horn: "The Shears that Cut the Iron Curtain weren't Sharp Enough."

The Foreign Minister who cut the Iron Curtain, the Socialist Prime Minster who privatised the economy, the Communist Militia Man who oversaw the transition to a democratic state - talks to foreign media on the Hungarian opposition's (non-) role in the transition, SS20s and Mihail Gorbachov- Part 1

Photo: Gyula Horn, speaking to the media at an earlier meeting, probably when prime minister c 1995. Although he could understand English, he normally used an interpreter, who, on occasion, he would correct if he thought he'd got it wrong.

Gyula Horn, Minister of Foreign Affairs, 1989-90. Prime Minister, 1994-98 died on June 19, 2013, just short of his 81st birthday after a long illness.

Background, for those not acquainted with the periods in question. From 1960 or so, the Soviet Union, based on its experience of WW2 and its interpretation of Marxist-Leninism, was preparing for a pre-emptive, nuclear strike on western Europe and the USA/Canada. This would have involved its reluctant Warsaw Pact allies, the countries of central-eastern Europe. As such, Hungary was tasked with invading neutral Austria and attacking Italy. (Yes, across the Alps, as in WW1. Talk about not learning from history!)

Against this background, and with the continued expansion of Soviet influence in the 1960s and 70s in places such as Cuba, Vietnam, Angola and Mozambique, tensions between the USSR and Nato countries reached a peak around 1978-82, with genuine concern that a nuclear conflict was a distinct possibility.

In December, 2005, I invited Gyula Horn to speak to the Hungarian International Press Association. It had been 15 years since the change of system and first democratic elections in Hungary. By then many of the foreign journalists had only second-hand knowledge of the transition to a multi-party system. The idea was that Horn, with his first-hand experience, would help shed light on those changes.

The result was both illuminating for what he said, and frustrating for what he didn't. Horn used an interpreter, but quite often spoke over his him, obscuring both voices.

I can't be certain, but I think it likely that this was the last time he talked to foreign media, at least to such an extent. Less than two years later, he was taken to hospital with what is believed to be Alzheimer's disease.

At the beginning of the meeting, Horn dropped the bombshell that it would be off record, which was not part of the plan at all. Despite this, as far as I know, all journalists present kept to his request. But now, almost 16 years after this meeting and eight years after his passing, I feel the historic significance of his views - however biased or otherwise - outweigh any moral duty to honour that imposed agreement.

This is an edited Q&A of the first 45 minutes of the meeting.

Kester Eddy: When did you feel that change towards a democratic Hungary was really underway? What was the process that you saw? And what was your part in it?

Gyula Horn: If this is the way to start, I'd like to say the whole thing started back on a Thursday, in 1974. We said to ourselves the process will have to be completed now. We understood that changes would continue. And, of course, the Helsinki final act [signed in 1975] played a decisive and determining role in that respect.

The essence of this was as follows, and I'm very sorry to say that even historians have not yet bothered to deal with this issue seriously.

These [the Helsinki Accords] were an agreement between the Soviets and western states that there had to be a slow down in the arms race, also, in return for the Soviets would not object to the free flow of people, of ideas and ideologies. So we had been discussing the respective cultural basket with the participation of practically all the western states.

I think this was the starting point, and János Kádár [the Hungarian leader] fully subscribed to it.

The Hungarian party played a significant mediatory role in this respect, because it took [Helsinki] seriously, that it was all about such free flows, with the understanding that this would result in mass effects, which even the leadership at that time could not avoid.

This was, in our understanding, the start of the new age.

Of course, [15 years later], on 27 June, 1989. We were equipped with shears, and cut the [Iron Curtain] fence at Sopron. But the shears were not sharp enough! Still, in the end we succeeded!

I believe that this act started a new phase in this process. There were no signs of such movements in any other country in this region.

Runa Hellinga: In 1989, you allowed the former GDR citizens to cross the border [into Austria]. Did you expect things would develop that fast afterwards?

GyH: Yes, that was a very significant period and action. This was the first time that we ignored a bilateral international agreement. At that time there was an agreement in force between Hungary and the GDR, that we would not allow the East Germans to go west, to leave for Austria. Rather, we had committed ourselves to forcefully repatriate any East German citizens who wanted to go to the west.

And our first thesis was, and I told this to the East Germans: nobody can be forced to live where he or she doesn't want to live.

The other basic element in this respect was that all international agreements took precedence over those agreements which we had concluded previously with our then [Warsaw Pact] allies.

I can tell you that I can only envy those who could think in terms of 5, 10, or 20 years ahead. I'd never thought about that. What I thought about was that we had reached the stage when things had to change, but we could not foresee that the whole European political landscape would change in the way that it did.

There was a fourth characteristic of these events - that we took those steps in a way that allowed for proper preparation. We had taken all possible outcomes into account before taking these steps, ranging from a possible economic blockade to military intervention.

Had Gorbachov not been in charge as first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party at that time, then there would have been intervention. It was he and [Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard] Shevadnadze who outrightly and categorically rejected any such intervention.

This was contrary to [the wishes of] others, because for example [Romanian President Nicolae] Ceaușescu called for military intervention to take place. And of course the East German leadership was also extraordinarily aggressive.

And two more points. First, we had to take into account those elements that Moscow opposed accession to Nato – Moscow insisted that a unified Germany would not become a member of Nato.

To overcome this resistance, we compiled a work programme, which Shevadnadze happily took note of, because it also allowed him to fulfil his desires.

The other thing that was of great importance was that there should be no confederation of the two Germanies, because there were some who suggested a confederation, instead of re-unification.

Charles Kovacs: I'd like to go back to 1974. You said that the Helsinki Accords caused an ease in tension. But in practice, what happened after 1974 was a great increase in tension. You had Russian shipments to Vietnam, the fall of Saigon, Ogaden, Ethiopia, Cuban troops in Angola, there was a whole range of actions. You had the Middle East, not all of which was presumably Russia's doing, but much of it was.

For sure, by the end of the 1970s, there was a lot of tension, and then came Ronald Reagan, etc etc. There was the Helsinki Accords on the one hand, but there was also a lot of international tension, we had the SS20s, the Pershing issue, a whole range of issues.

What was your, Hungary's, reaction to these developments?

GyH: We have a lot to thank Gorbachov for. Contrary to his predecessors, he did not intervene in internal affairs. This enabled us to push ideologies out of foreign policy.

Look at Russian foreign policy today. It rests on an absolutely pragmatic basis. It is motivated by interests, there is not a trace left of previous practices.

There were two other things that Gorbachov did, which are not often talked about. First, that he, as First Party Secretary of the USSR, also eradicated the ideological elements from international relations. Under the previous strategy the USSR would go to Africa, Asia or wherever and support the national liberation movements. He stopped this.

And the third element was the SS20s. Well, everything could be imagined regarding the SS20s. I can tell you about a personal experience, where I played a small part in this story.

The chief foreign policy adviser* to Gorbachov was a close friend of mine, and I had a meeting with him in Moscow. His working room was next to Gorbachov's working room.

[*Horn did not mention him by name, but is presumably referring to Anatoly Sergeevich Chernyaev, credited as the originator of virtually all Gorbachov's foreign policy initiatives.]

We were having a big set too about the SS20s and other [military] developments. I was arguing that the SS20s were stimulating another round of the arms race, and undermined what mutual confidence that had existed beforehand.

Suddenly, Gorbachov stepped into the room, and asked us what the argument was about. So I told him, it's about the SS20s; that their deployment should not have been allowed.

Gorbachov was stunned to hear this from me, and he asked me to justify my view. I said, how would you react to this threat if you lived in the west? Because this [Soviet] action ruled out any possible chance of a partnership.

Gorbachov was surprised, and said that the military leaders had told him that this was merely a technical matter.

I told him that this move would turn everything upside down, everything that he had so far achieved in the detente process.

It was then that we began to discuss these issues, and from that time on, I developed a friendship with Gorbachov that exists to this day. He's an extremely open man, though of course, you could still feel the effects of Soviet schooling on him because he put a fatal blow on the world policy role of the USSR and also Russia.

I probably contributed, however small a part, in convincing him about the necessity to withdraw his decision. And this is what he actually did.

This is not something that politicians do very often. And let me add that Gorbachov also withstood subsequent criticism from the Soviet military leadership.

And the final step was completed at the Malta summit [between US President George H W Bush and Gobachov in December 1989].

Charles Kovacs: Nonetheless, there was the period from 75 – 80, when everything was getting hot.

GyH: There was nothing of significance. Absolutely nothing. Those were ideological games with Mozambique. The big problem was Angola. In Angola – what they did there, with the Cubans in Angola, produced a setback that would last for eight to ten years.

Vietnam was an issue where tensions were cooling down at that time.

1975 was when the Russians first began to deal with their internal situation, in Russia and the Soviet Union. They began to have their minds on internal matters.

Henk Hirs: When you explained how the changes came about, you did not mention the role of the then opposition – SzDSz [Free Democrats] and Fidesz. Can I conclude from that that the changes were basically the work of the reformers within the party itself?

GyH: The opposition – I can assure you that they played no significant role in Hungary. Maybe it was our mistake. Also, luckily, I was not given the task of having to negotiate with the opposition.

My first memory in regard to the opposition was Viktor Orbán. When I met him in consultations which I called for, because I sometimes volunteered to convene such meetings. And I remember Viktor said he would not sit down with us. I said, come on, Viktor, for goodness sake, sit down. He replied: I will not sit down with you.

Later on, I can say we became almost friends, and later still, we had a couple of meetings, including when I was in opposition and also when I was in government. And he did the same thing when he was prime minister.

But [in the 1980s] there was no such opposition that would have changed our policies.

A secretary of the Central Committee was charged with leading talks with the opposition. I won't tell you his name, but he was not meant for this world.

<It's not clear to me whether this is meant in a good or bad way – Ed.>

The then opposition primarily included the SzDSz (the Alliance of Free Democrats, the political descendents of the active opposition of the 70s and 80s). Fidesz only became a party after everything had unfolded.

Look, there were some minor [Samizdat] magazines with print run of 400-500 copies. Does anyone believe that the change of system was brought about in the editorial offices of these puny papers? That's laughable!

[With special thanks to SN for language clarifications] <To be continued>

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